THE MAGAZINE: From the March 13 Issue
Irwin M Stelzer
Donald Trump might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the environmental movement. As Winston Churchill replied when his wife suggested his party’s loss might turn out to be just such a blessing in disguise, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”
But consider: He has appointed Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency. That agency has become too sprawling, too bloated, too eager to expand its reach, too much in thrall to the extreme elements of the environmental movement to function effectively. It proved unable to provide Flint, Michigan, with safe drinking water and has become a major polluter of the rivers of Colorado. It has alienated its friends by refusing to provide the data on which it bases its decisions. Pruitt’s clean-out of its clogged arteries should help restore it to effectiveness in performing the environmental protection duties Congress has set for it.
More important, Trump is about to shatter environmentalists’ illusions that they have actually accomplished something to slow what they perceive to be a dangerous heating of the globe. The Paris Agreement, signed by some 200 nations, has led environmental activist groups around the world to claim victory over the emissions they so fear. But in private conversation many concede that any victory was extremely limited, and some even declare Paris a defeat, with the possible exception of the quality of the fare laid on by their French hosts. China and India signed on with undoubted sighs of relief at getting off easily while avoiding a public relations disaster, and continued their massive programs of constructing coal-fired generating stations. Germany was a self-congratulatory signatory, but continues to burn perhaps the dirtiest coal in the world to make up for the base-load generation lost by phasing out its nuclear plants, for which the sun and the wind are no substitute. The French chortled about the success of their superior diplomacy, while the goal of reducing emissions was made more difficult to attain because their badly constructed, often off-line, over-budget nuclear plants continue to give that emissionless source of energy a black eye. Canada expressed satisfaction with the results but even greater joy later when President Trump’s approval of the Keystone pipeline allowed its green – hued prime minister to look forward to expanding production of perhaps the dirtiest oil on and under the earth.
Meanwhile, developing countries signed on for the promise of $100 billion annually in wealth to be transferred to them by the world’s richer countries (a goal sought by them long before anyone had ever heard of global warming). Anyone who thinks most of these signatories are prepared to trade economic development now for a cooler planet a century or so from now should pay a visit to New Delhi or Beijing and try to persuade leaders responsible for providing electricity and jobs for millions of people to stop building coal-fired plants.
Most important are the two basic reasons for gloom among smart greens who were hoping Paris would relieve the threat of an overheated globe. First, even if all the countries keep to their pledges, the aggregate pledges are “by no means enough” to prevent further dangerous warming according to the U.N. officials charged with monitoring this sort of thing. Second, there is no enforcement mechanism and no one to name and shame those nations that do not keep their word now that John Kerry is off to Yale to share with another generation of students his knowledge of how to conduct negotiations. Only those participants in the Paris conference who wear rose-colored glasses will feel like Rick, assuring his departing Ilsa that they will always have Paris.
Trump’s mooted withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – if nothing else, he recognizes a bad deal when he sees one – should persuade environmentalists to begin exploring a few roads not taken in favor of resuming their careen down the regulatory highway. The need to recognize the new reality -Donald Trump is the president of the United States (say it a few times and it might not hurt as much) – will become even clearer when Pruitt sets in motion the process of interring the Clean Power Plan, which environmentalists have been counting on to force states to seek EPA approval for plans to reduce emissions, and which undergirds the Paris accord, making it irrelevant even if he should decide not to pull out.
Environmentalists are not the only ones who will have to come to grips with a new reality. Things are not going all that well for two groups that doubt the problem is that great, or that draconian and costly regulation is the cure. Some, whom a generally hysterical mainstream media and environmental true believers insist on antagonizing by likening them to Holocaust “deniers,” believe the entire issue is a hoax, designed as a cover for the expansion of government into still more sectors of the economy. Our president may or may not be among them. But he is also not the most reliable of champions, “a man of his most recent word,” to borrow from William F. Buckley Jr.’s description of Lyndon Johnson. His daughter-adviser, we know, is far greener than her father, and if his new position on family leave is any indication, she can be quite persuasive. So even he may move from denial to mere skepticism at the propitious moment, which could come at any time. Those who believe the climate is not changing might do well to use the possibility that it is as an excuse to reach a goal that has always eluded conservatives. Here is an opportunity to transfer the tax burden from work to consumption, from payroll taxes to, dare I say it, a carbon tax. Without conceding for one minute that there is any threat to the environment.
The second group, the skeptics, neither believers nor scoffers, are driven to their position in part by the overheated rhetoric of the true believers, and in part by an unwillingness to ignore much scientific, if inconclusive evidence. This group includes many conservative Republicans who deem it wise to sit on the sidelines of the debate rather than risk antagonizing their more vocal constituents. The chance that such mugwumpishness is a successful electoral strategy seems to be diminishing. Polls suggest about two out of every three Americans worry a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about climate change, the highest reading in almost a decade. Blame some of this on unbalanced reporting by the media, but it is nevertheless a reality.
Until Trump came to power, Democrats had an answer: more regulation. And Republicans had an answer: disbelief or at most a call for continued research. Now, both parties have a problem. With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate, Democrats can no longer promise more regulation. So the Democrats can either curse their lot, which offers solace only to those who prefer whining to winning, or end their war on fossil fuels. That war is one reason working-class voters, men (mostly), who dig and load and ship coal, or depend on oil drilling for jobs, and for whom abundant supplies of natural gas are necessary if the price of heating their homes is to remain affordable, rejected the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, for whom none of these things was even on the radar. Or the Democrats can trade their beloved regulations for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Absent that, their cupboard is bare of goodies to offer their green constituents in return for campaign contributions and votes.
As for Republicans, they can choose to ignore the majority of voters in order to please their coal-state constituents, or take cover offered by two new developments. The first is the public position taken by Republican notables such as James Baker, Hank Paulson, and George Shultz, and well – regarded conservative economists such as Gregory Mankiw and Martin Feldstein. Yes, these establishment types are out of fashion in some circles, but they still matter in others. They are proposing that all Obama climate initiatives be eliminated in favor of a carbon tax. The it’s-all-a hoax crowd can swallow hard and choose to go along, defending that move by noting that it is part of a no-more-regulations package and will increase the pay packets of working Americans.
The second new development is a rising belief in the feasibility of border taxes. Paul Ryan and his House followers want to impose them in order to make free trade fairer, and are confident they comply with World Trade Organization rules. Proponents of a carbon tax argue that a similar border tax on the pollution content of imports from countries that don’t follow our lead will protect American firms from competition by foreign polluters. But there is a very important distinction between the two taxes. The Ryan tax is designed to raise revenue to fund a major reduction in the corporate tax rate. The carbon tax should be revenue-neutral, all proceeds to be reflected immediately in workers’ paychecks, and therefore will not be exposed to the skimming that the tax collector favors. Indeed, any carbon tax plan will have to incorporate a virtually instantaneous offsetting tax cut in order to be credible, and might need to be tilted a bit to favor Joe the Plumber and his gas-guzzling pickup truck at the expense of the limos of the Hollywood and Mar-a-Lago sets.
So environmentalists have a golden and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shed their illusion that command – and – control regulations can solve what they see as a problem that rivals ISIS as a threat, and to take the path so far not taken. For others, those who very much doubt or reject the output of green models, there is a similar once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the burden of taxes away from work and onto consumption, perhaps cutting into pollutants along the way. Even if they doubt that the earth is warming, they cannot doubt that easing the tax burden on work by lowering employees’ payroll taxes will both encourage some who have dropped out of the work force to return and stimulate growth.